Isaac Luria, Director of Communications and New Media for J Street, discusses a primary J Street goal: changing what it means to be pro-Israel, why a one-state solution is really a one-state delusion, how Avigdor Lieberman undermines Israel’s status as a democracy and natural ally of the U.S., indications Bibi Netanyahu will concede part of E. Jerusalem and the short 6-12 month window of opportunity for serious Palestinian/Israeli negotiations.
MP3 here. (17:57) Transcript below.
Isaac Luria is Director of Communications and New Media for J Street. He previously worked for 4 years in online organizing and consulting, 2 years of which he spent at the online marketing firm Donordigital in San Francisco. Isaac received his Bachelors degree in American Studies from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. During 2007-2008, Isaac lived in Jerusalem, Israel as a Dorot Fellow. Isaac lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Sara, who is studying to become a Reform Rabbi.
Transcript – Scott Horton interviews Isaac Luria, July 31, 2010
Scott Horton: All right y’all, welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio. I’m Scott Horton. Our next guest is Isaac Luria from JStreet – the pro-peace Israel lobby in Washington D.C. How’s it going, Isaac?
Isaac Luria: Going great. Thanks for having me, Scott.
Horton: Well thanks very much for joining us today. Well, lots of stuff in the news in terms of Middle East policy and the Israel Lobby in the United States. I guess we could talk about Iran sanctions. We could talk about East Jerusalem. We could talk about Representative [Ileana] Ros-Lehtinen and her efforts to kick the Palestinian Authority out of the United States. What do you think? You pick.
Luria: Well let’s start with Ros-Lehtinen, because I think it’s an important indication of some of what JStreet’s been up to in the last little while. We are right now asking our hundred and fifty thousand supporters online to take action with us in opposing a letter that Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has been circulating-out for signatures. The letter actually calls to kick the Palestinian diplomatic representation that they have here in the United States out of the country.
And this is, I mean, it’s just a wild idea, one that is so far out of the mainstream when it comes to folks who really care about achieving a peace in the region that will secure Israel’s future, you know, the right thing to do by the Palestinians, and solve American, you know, help American interests in the region. You know, we are really pushing back on this letter. I think it is just a really difficult thing to see happen in Capitol Hill.
I can just imagine the Israelis and Palestinians are trying to come to direct talks now in the region. The U.S. is, you know, Mitchell, his team, Secretary Clinton, President Obama are doing what they can to get this train moving on the right track, and these sorts of firebombs get thrown from Congress, and it’s really unhelpful. And I hope that people will join us, come to our website JStreet.org and fight back against this fearmongering. Because we do need a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and stuff like this really sets that back.
Horton: Well you know, it seems like a lot of the pro-right wing, pro-Likud kind of argument in America is based around the idea that, “To give up the West Bank is to destroy Israel forever; they want us all just destroyed forever” and just completely conflating the ’48 borders with the ’67 ones, or even the ’45 borders with the ’67 ones. It seems like the whole argument takes place, maybe deliberately, detached from reality – “To believe in this, you just have to believe in it, and this is our line and we’re sticking to it.”
Luria: Right, and I think that’s exactly what JStreet was founded to change. There is this idea that being pro-Israel means marching in lockstep with a particular Israeli government policy. There are some things that Benjamin Netanyahu has done which I think is a good thing, but I think overall we have to be doing what we can to advance the peace process. It is so urgently needed, as a pro-Israel American, as a Zionist, I believe that this is the only way that Israel is ever going to be secure, and that means sharing the land with the Palestinians, finding the way to divide the biblical land of Israel into a state for the Palestinians and a state for the Israelis. And that is, for me, the fulfillment of the Zionist idea. If we believe that Jews should be able to determine their own fate in a country of their own, we also must believe that another people – the Palestinians – should be able to determine their own fate in a country of their own, as well. So that is my version of what it means to be pro-Israel, and that’s what JStreet’s trying to advance on Capitol Hill and with the administration.
Horton: [police sirens audible] Jeez, sounds like they’re coming for ya, Isaac.
Luria: [laughs] You know, I think it’s one of these issues that is just considered a third rail in American politics. I think we’re prying-open the space. We have to. There’s no other way to approach this issue than by mounting an aggressive political campaign to change hearts and minds on Capitol Hill and in the American Jewish community. So I think we’re having some success.
It is an incredibly difficult issue, a hot button issue, so we have a lot more to do to make that work. You know, every time – and I say this to staff, I say this to friends of mine and supporters of JStreet – that every time we are attacked by the “right” people – and I mean the folks on the other side of the aisle – when it comes to being pro-Israel – that they make us stronger, that they show that they do only want one way of being pro-Israel to be – “there’s only one way to be pro-Israel in the American Jewish community or on Capitol Hill.” So it proves our point. And we have the ability then to turn that into new supporters, into money for candidates that we support, and the like.
Horton: Right on. Yeah well, that’s certainly true. I mean, it has seemed for a long time as though there’s just the one line, but I think more and more people are understanding at least that there is an argument that the policies of the Israeli government and the policies of the pro-Israeli government forces in America are really bad for Israel over the long term if you want Israel to exist under the parameters as you just said.
Now me, I’m kind of a Declaration of Independence guy, and I don’t think race or religion matter, but then again that’s a kinda newfangled western-American kind of idea, and racial and ethnic division, religious division by border, is the symptom of the way the old word works, I guess. I wouldn’t try to insist on overthrowing all that, I guess, but then again it’s kinda funny – I saw Avigdor Lieberman – well you can characterize him however you want – but I guess it’s at least just fair to say – is a very right-wing nationalist and is the foreign minister there – of Israel. He was actually talking more like what I would think would be the idea – not that I would trust him to implement it my way or anything – but he was saying, “What we ought to have is just a one-state solution and equal rights for everyone,” and why should it be a division of Jewish versus Christian and Muslim for the land instead of just the Bill of Rights for everybody?
Luria: Well I think that is a, you know, just not where JStreet comes down. We believe that a two-state solution is the solution. I actually don’t believe that any sort of one-state scenario is going to lead to peace. I think it’s a sort of scenario that actually will end up with more violence. We will see – I call it a one-state delusion because I think that when people support it that what they’re actually going to result in – and I think that people come at this – they want to grapple with this issue, they’re trying to come up with the right answer – but I do think that it’s important to say that we would be consigning the region, especially the Israelis and Palestinians, to a 40-year, 50-year Kosovo-style low grade conflict that will claim many more lives and destabilize the region further.
And second, as a pro-Israel American, as somebody who believes that there needs to be a Jewish homeland, that Israel is that homeland, and we’ve got to secure it – and that means borders. And that means that the character of the state would be defined by its citizens which would be majority Jewish in the context of a two-state solution. So I understand the one-state movement, and you see it also popping up, as you said, you know from right-wing politicians in Israel – but I think that it is a mistake. I think that that’s the sort of rethinking of the last twenty years of policy that could get us down a very, very difficult and dangerous path, not just for Israel but for everybody in the region.
Horton: What do you think Lieberman is up to, trying to agree with me about something? Doesn’t seem right.
Luria: You know, I think that Lieberman is a character in Israeli politics that is very difficult to handle for many American Jews. What we see in Israel and what we believe is good about Israel is that it’s a democracy. It is representative of the values that we hold dear, that we share enemies in terrorism, that that setup of a values-based relationship – you know, a strategic relationship, as well, between the U.S. and Israel – but in particular a values-based relationship – that whole idea is called into question by people like Avigdor Lieberman who don’t have the same view of what it means to be in a democracy.
Horton: All right, I’m sorry, hold it right there, Isaac – we got to go out and take this break. Go look at JStreet.org, the pro-peace Israel lobby in D.C. We’ll be right back with Isaac Luria right after this.
Horton: All right, so we’re on the phone with Isaac Luria from JStreet. JStreet.org is the website, and when we were so rudely interrupted by the commercial break, Isaac, we were talking about Avigdor Lieberman – Israel’s Lieberman – and he’s the foreign minister there, and you were arguing that he’s so right wing and nationalist in his policies and proposals and ways of doing things that he’s delegitimizing the argument that Israel is a democracy and therefore a natural ally of the United States. And that is of concern to you guys at JStreet.
Luria: Yeah. I mean, I think that Avigdor Lieberman’s view of what Israel should be – will be – is not mine. He does not see the beauty, I don’t think, of the Declaration of Independence of Israel that pledged to respect and honor the rights of all people living within the borders of the state. So I think that this is just one of those issues in which JStreet just disagrees with the way that Avigdor Lieberman approaches what it means to have a state of Israel and a state with a Jewish majority, and I think that there is a key difference here.
And I am worried about the pull of politicians like him inside Israel and what that means for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. When Americans see a politician who really represents the antithesis of their values when it comes to democracy, when it comes to civil rights, when it comes to rights of minorities, it just doesn’t sit well, and it should be rejected. And I think what we’re trying to do is really mount a – what I would call a last ditch effort to save Israel from the brink of losing its democratic nature. And that’s why we’re supporting President Obama’s push for a two-state solution. And this is, I think, just given the political calendar and given the trends in Palestinian and Israeli society, one of the last times that we’re really going to be able to push hard for a two-state solution and secure Israel’s future as a Jewish democratic home.
Horton: Well you know, I wonder how much all this – you know we are talking about Benjamin Netanyahu’s government here – and I’m sure you remember the “Clean Break” strategy that was written by the American neocons Richard Perle and Douglas Feith and David Wurmser. And what they said was, at least part of it was – and what he did – was disrupt, basically sabotage, the Oslo peace deal, and then they carried out the rest of it: getting America to invade Iraq, which was supposed to, get this, weaken Iran, which I think is hilarious. But I wonder whether you think it’s possible for Israel to ever have an about-face on this policy of, you know, the larger regional policy of, “We will just be stronger than everyone forever and dominate them, and they won’t dare try to oppose us forever” rather than trying to make friends with everybody? You know what I mean? America can only bribe Egypt to pretend not to hate Israel for so long; what if Mubarak died, you know?
Luria: Well I think that’s the question that’s on the table right now – whether or not Prime Minister Netanyahu is going to take this opportunity and really pursue it. There are some encouraging signs in the past few weeks. I know this sounds odd from a JStreet representative, but I think there have been real encouraging signs from Bibi Netanyahu recently.
He made a statement to a gathering of American Jewish leaders in New York on the issue of Jerusalem, which, as you probably know, is one of the key stumbling blocks when it comes to the peace process. What do we do about Jerusalem? How do we share it? Who gets the Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem? Who gets the Jewish neighborhoods in West Jerusalem, and what happens to the holy sites in the Old City? But on that issue the prime minister, when asked whether or not in the context of a two-state solution agreement, “would Jerusalem remain united,” which is a code-language for, “would Jerusalem remain under Israeli control entirely, including Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem” – which is a non-starter with the Palestinians and probably a non-starter with the two-state solution, as well. Assuredly a non-starter.
But he didn’t answer in the way that anybody had expected. He said, “Oh you know, of course there are Palestinian neighborhoods which might end up as part of East Jerusalem,” which is a very different answer than he’s ever given on Jerusalem – totally different; seems like a change. And then you watch to see if the Prime Minister’s bureau is going to deny it, and they didn’t. Usually those denials happen very quickly, and this one was not denied.
So my view is that the jury is still out. It’s not yet decided whether or not Bibi is the right man for the job. I think that he has an opportunity to make history, that he is going to need to understand that this is the last great window to do it – with President Obama in the White House, with Abbas and Fayyad in charge in the West Bank. So it remains to be seen. I am hoping. And JStreet will be pushing this Israeli government in ways that we can from America to take this opportunity and pursue it.
Horton: Well now I guess you imply there, when you say kind of, “last chance, last window of opportunity” kind of language there – then after this, then what? Israel will be doomed to a one-state solution, right? It seems like a major question is, “Can, or even will, the Israeli army, if ordered, remove settlers from the West Bank?” – which is already divided up into such tiny little pieces that you can’t make a state there without undoing the massive settlements that are crisscrossing the place.
Luria: And you’re right that many settlements will have to be evacuated in order to make this two-state solution work. The question of what happens next, I think, is a very difficult one. I think that things are going to move – there’s going to be a lot more drama before we have any sort of answer to that, but I’m focused on this goal which is: In the next six months, are we going to see progress? If we don’t see progress in the next six to twelve months, I think we’re in a very dangerous spiral.
So the key is the American government. Are they going to be able to have the political will behind their effort to make peace? And I think that that is also a question now that JStreet is faced with. And that’s what our role is, to create that political space so that President Obama will be able to do what’s necessary to bring the parties to the table, to propose compromised solutions, and to push, when necessary, to get both sides, Palestinians and Israelis, to agree to the two-state solution based along what they almost agreed to in the nineties and two-thousands.
Horton: All right now we’re very short on time here – that’s the bumper music all ready playing – so just really quickly kind of yes or no: Are we nearing the day when JStreet has as much authority on Capital Hill as AIPAC?
Luria: We are doing what we can to fight against all kinds of folks on the right. I wouldn’t put AIPAC as the only one; there are lots of them and we’re building.
Horton: All right everybody that’s Isaac Luria at JStreet.
Luria: Thanks so much. Join us at JStreet.org.